Friday, 31 January 2014

A school of art you won't have heard of – and some artists you might have

The Red Baron, Barry Blend (2005)
Sometimes, little mysteries solve themselves when you’re least expecting it.

Last summer, when I interviewed artist Barry Blend in Collioure, he said of his own work: “There is a word for it actually; they have a word for it in French ... but I’ve forgotten it.”

Well, I thought about it, but didn’t get very far in trying to find that word.

And then, in October, while watching an online BBC video report of an exhibition of van Gogh’s Paris periodI came across a school that I hadn’t heard of before: cloisonnism.

It’s easy enough to have missed. Neither the Oxford Companion to Art nor Art: The definitive guide from Dorling Kindersley make mention of it in their indexes.

A piece of cloisonné jewellery
So a certain amount of internet trawling was required.

The information fished up revealed that it’s generally described as a style of Expressionism that uses blocks of bold and largely flat colours that are divided by dark contours – an echo of the jewellery technique of cloisonné, where wires are soldered into place to make a design, the spaces are filled with powdered glass (vitreous enamel) and then the whole is fired.

The term was coined by critic Édouard Dujardin in 1888, during the Salon des Indépendents, and it remains associated with the likes of Gauguin – The Yellow Christ (1889) seems to be regarded as an iconic example.

Many of the painters who used the style described their works as Synthetism.

And most sources also seem to suggest that the school was pretty much finished by about 1903.

But there are plenty of later works that suggest that it didn’t die out at all.

Picasso’s Pitcher and Bowl of Fruit (1931, oil on canvas) very much fits the definition – and who is anyone to argue with Pablo?

Yellow Christ, Gauguin
There are all sorts of cross-overs too: it’s easy, for instance, to see why Roy Lichtenstein might be included in a discussion of cloisonnism – which as much as anything, illustrates how open a term ‘pop art’ is and, indeed, how many art styles overlap with others.

There are plenty of recent works that fit the core description.

Anita Klein’s Willow (2010, silkscreen with woodblock) is one example.

Julian Opie’s Imagine You Are Driving (fast)
Olivier/helmet (Lambda print on photographic paper) is another – as are, of course, his own iconic Blur portraits, and Opie has also created quite different and equally modern works that absolutely scream of being cloisonnism by the simple fact of being stained glass.

Of these two, one could say that the Klein seems to hark back to Gauguin – if from a different period in his career – while Opie’s work looks much more like Lichtenstein.

Pitcher and Fruit, Picasso
But we don’t have to stick with the straightforwardly figurative. Take a look at Richard Woods’s woodcut, Remnant No1 (around the fireplace) from 2013. 

This is all rather intriguing on a personal level: I’ve long thought – felt, would probably be more accurate – that I didn’t ‘do’ colour.

I struggled in art at school whenever anything other than drawing was required.

In my memory, I only ‘discovered’ colour when I first saw some van Gogh in the National Gallery when I was about 19.

But it’s equally the case that I always liked cloisonné and other forms of enamel jewellery, not least because of the sheer vividness of colour.

Willow, Anita Klein
However, that’s a slight diversion.

Let’s go back to the original context of this article. It’s clear that Barry Blend’s work most definitely fits the core description of cloisonnism.

His work also fits other labels too – see my comments above about the flexibility of many schools, while I’ve noted previously that pop art, cartoon and stained glass could all be terms that would be applicable to his work.

When in Collioure last August, I gave into temptation (not difficult) and bought another one of Barry’s paintings. The Other Half, knowing my Prussophilia, was understanding.

The Red Baron touched down safely in Hackney, just down the road from Barry’s childhood home in Clapton, in September and now hangs above my workspace, where I spend a fair old amount of time just looking at and enjoying it.

Barry has a fascination for aircraft and, indeed, has also painted a larger version of the same subject, which he currently keeps in his own home.

Imagine You Are Driving (fast) Olivier/helmet, Julian Opie
But like his other paintings, the brushwork is just one fascinating aspect of his work.

Something else also struck me during the autumn.

Reading Hilary Spurling’s really excellent Matisse the Life, she makes the following observation:

“Discussing luminosity long afterwards with his son-in-law, he [Matisse] said that a picture should have the power to generate light.”

Remnant No1 (around the fireplace), Richard Woods
Of The Conversation (1908-12), Matisse’s Russian champion, “Shchukin, who first saw the painting at Issy in July, wrote that it glowed in his memory like a Byzantine enamel”.

Enamel, cloisonnism and light. There are more than a few links here.

Barry’s paintings have the same quality: they add light to a room.

September’s interview revealed Barry’s connections to a Collioure past that has now gone, linking his work with many artists who have gone before – although I’ll maintain that, if you look at other representations of the village by artists operating now, there’s nothing else remotely like his work.

But if Barry’s work has links with the past, it doesn’t dwell in the past: he creates new, vibrant images that draw on many schools, but are entirely of themselves and of him and how he sees and remembers.

Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein
And nobody should ever be suckered by their apparent simplicity. Personally, I never cease to get enormous pleasure from looking at them.

They’re far more sophisticated than one might initially think, but then that is half the reason why they’re so good.

So there we have it: a little mystery solved and, in the solving of it, a lovely array of new knowledge opened up about a school that I imagine few of us had ever heard of before.

No comments:

Post a Comment